August 19, 2016

Brexit Referendum: Its Likely Impact on Regional Organizations

Maung Maung Gyi

When the UK’s referendum result was announced on 24 June 2016, the news came out that the people in the UK have decided to leave the EU. The UK Prime Minister David Cameron immediately announced that he would resign from the position of Prime Minister, probably at the Conservative Party Conference to take place in the coming October.


Britain’s decision to leave the EU has great repercussions on the UK as well as on the EU. Peoples in some EU member countries, especially in the major EU countries, who have also been calling for their respective countries to leave the EU, may be encouraged to demand similar referendums, on whether their peoples would also like to remain in the EU or not. Some are worried that the referendum and the decision of the British people to leave the EU could have the domino effect.
Whether the EU would gradually become stronger or withered due to the departure of the UK, only the time will tell. The EU is a very strong Institution as it has been built up step by step since 1951 with the first establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) with six members: Belgium, West Germany, Luxembourg, France, Italy and the Netherlands. The rules governing the EU Institution are also very impressive as they have been nurtured and strengthened during this time of the gradual formation of the Institution, based on experiences and lessons learned from the history of Europe as well as from the process of the Institution-building itself. After all, there is, if any, only a very remote possibility that it would disintegrate or disappear in the foreseeable future, let alone in the near future. In fact, the UK itself would not be very eager to leave the EU very quickly. There may be delays on the part of the UK to trigger the Article 50 by formally notifying its intention to leave the EU. Top Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson stressed on the 27th June in his regular column in the Daily Telegraph newspaper that Britain would not be rushed into activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will set the clock ticking on a two-year period to negotiate its divorce from the EU.
The EU is not only important for Europe and the European citizens for whom it has been established. It is also important for other regional Institutions established in other regions that followed the lead of the EU, like the ASEAN in Southeast Asia. For the ASEAN and other regional organizations that have sprung up in other regions and continents, the EU has been their best model from the very beginning. They have been nourished, nurtured, and educated by its systematic legal framework, disciplined and stringent implementation, and by examples of harmonious and peaceful development of the EU and its member countries, and its invaluable contribution towards the European continent as well as to the world at large in terms of economic development, prosperity, harmony, and establishing and consolidating peace in the region and at every corner of the world. The other regional organizations have been steadfastly looking upon the EU and eagerly learning from it.
Yes, the world at the present moment may be portrayed as the one in disorder and confusion in some respects. Most of the countries have been experiencing difficulties to some extent, in one form or another, even if some might not have reached to the point of a crisis. The difficulties are in various forms, some economic, some political, some social, and some environmental. They may be in the form of war, terror, economic, financial, climate change, immigration or migration – in the form of migrant workers or economic migrants or asylum seekers or political refugees, or due to some kinds of abuses of rights in the human societies of individual countries. Douglas Hurd, former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, has also succinctly observed the state of the world in his book ‘Choose Your Weapons’ published in 2011 that, “. . . we see a world apparently adrift among many simultaneous threats. Climate change, shortage of food, water and energy, pressures of populations, financial collapse, in many places political chaos, bitterness and war all crowd the agenda.”
Indeed, there are inequalities within the countries as well as between the countries in the globe. Peoples are able to witness those divisions and inequalities, and prosperity and development gaps, happening within and outside their own countries from their own drawing rooms via television, internet access or face book and twitter, thanks to the globalized technological and communication revolution taking place on this earth. There is no way to hide any happening or development, whether good or bad, taking place in any corner of the world. This can be said good and bad. People who are poor would like to move to places where life would be better. Many are unable to assist the motivating forces for migration. It may simply be economic migration, or may be an attempt to escape from political persecution. For migrant laborers, they want to work where wages are higher. For economic migrants, they want to live where they could easily secure their social needs and to realize their dreams for better lives. Some are unhappy with the way things are going in their own countries. Their poverty, helplessness and feeling of unfairness and frustration, and also their dreams, have many a time been exploited and these people become preys of traffickers, terrorists, extremist ideologues, and religious fanatics.
Against this backdrop, the regional organizations were established with the aim of improving the lives and lots of the peoples in the region where individual countries, particularly smaller ones, would not be able to work out by themselves to achieve their noble and humanitarian objectives. Primarily, this is due to the change of the international political and economic landscape. The world has become a globalized world and, in a globalized world, everything is interconnected and interrelated, whether they are political, or economic, or trade, or finance, or social or environmental, or religious matters. The world has become borderless in many ways. In a borderless world, whatever happens in one place of the earth, like economic or financial crisis, or infectious diseases, or natural disasters, will have impact on other countries and areas both near and afar. Many a time, individual countries, even larger countries, let alone the small ones, would not be in a position to avoid or deter themselves from these catastrophes by themselves singlehandedly. There are other factors such as lack of necessities and essentials in one’s own country, such as capital, skills, investment, or advanced technology, etc. In other words, individual countries that are unable to achieve development and fulfill the needs of its own people or lift their living standard are in fact in need of capacity and resources in organizing economic forces.
At this juncture, the regional organizations have come into play partly with the objective of organizing assistance to each other to enable to successfully carrying out their functions for the uplift of their peoples. Originally, the fundamental objectives of the regional organizations, such as the EU and ASEAN, are to establish security, peace and harmony in the region and to help in assisting each other in their efforts to improve trade and economic relations with the outside world.
In our region, ASEAN has become a success story in enabling the member countries to become developed, rich and prosper. In addition to that, the Association has been able to make peace among its member countries and there had been obvious lack of conflicts among the countries in the Association for a long period of time. In the later stages, after peace and harmony had been established to some extent among the countries in the region, trade and economic areas have been given priority in their cooperation endeavours. Slowly, they also ventured into other fields such as cooperation in the social and environmental matters. That was when they have become more confident to try to integrate their peoples into a Community.
On the other hand, it should be noted that regional organizations are in fact a combination of individual countries. Individual countries are sovereign countries. So there are national interests of the individual countries in the Organizations. The Organizations have tried to compromise and harmonize these interests. So long as they are successful, the organizations will continue to exist and prosper, and may move on to the next stages of integration. For individual countries also, they are also made up of individual peoples and/or races. So, there is an entity called nationalistic sentiments.
Individual countries and the regional organization that is composed of the individual countries should not forget this factor. If the people in individual countries feel that something has gone wrong in their regional organization, they would go back to cling this nationalistic factor. The thing that could go wrong could be border issues between the two member countries, or economic development gap or income or prosperity gap that the people in one country feel they were left behind or not been treated fairly, or anything like that. But in the case of the United Kingdom, it could be the sovereignty issue. So, the regional organizations tried to take measures to integrate all the peoples of the individual countries by trying to take up social programmes. The main objective of the social programme is to achieve awareness of their identity of being peoples belonging to the same Community.
But, again, politics and economics matter. If the people in one country feel they were not gaining or receiving what they are entitled to or what they had hoped for, or they feel they are losing unnecessarily, or they have been robbed of their sovereign rights, they would voice their concern, and if that could not be resolved in a reasonable time, the consequences could be disastrous. That could be what might have caused the people of the United Kingdom to decide to leave the EU. There are problems abound like immigration, terrorism, job security and unemployment that are sensational and could quickly stoke up the emotions of the people, let alone matters concerning sovereignty, economic disparity and trade imbalances.
There is indeed a paradox in the development of societies and countries. The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Super Power rivalry had brought fundamental changes to the international and regional environment as the world has undergone basic transformations. The underlying concept of international relations which had existed since the end of the Second World War also began to change dramatically, bringing with it new challenges and new prospects. The new trends in the international environment pointed an era of globalization characterized by growing interdependence among countries on the globe. It means that every nation is affected by events beyond its borders.
In today’s globalized world, it was viewed that regional cooperation and regional integration has become the way forward as no small country can prosper outside the framework of regional cooperation and integration. Small countries also cannot make their voices heard unless they band together. In addition to that, the response of small and medium-sized countries to the global challenges should also be to seek greater cooperation and solidarity with neighbours. When States act in concert, they can make a difference in international relations. It means that multilateralism is not only a positive factor but also a must for small and medium-sized states. The best hope for small and medium-sized countries to survive and prosper should be to focus on regional integration, strong ties with neighbours and multilateralism.
In Europe, the EU had been in place and firmly entrenched, and gradually small countries in Europe, particularly those countries in the Eastern Europe which had become liberated from the Communist yoke when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989 have joined the EU in earnest and the number of members in the EU has increased and at the present moment it has 28 members.
In Southeast Asia, it was ASEAN that has been fostering regional stability and it was through ASEAN that countries in the region could deal with other countries and regions from a position of strength. ASEAN has neither been a Military Alliance nor a Supra-National Government that had the authority over its individual members. It is noteworthy that full sovereign authority remained vested in each Member-State.
These developments in Europe and Southeast Asia are positive and should be welcome by the international community because they have not only led to peace and prosperity in the respective regions but they would also be leading to the establishment of unity and harmony and resolution of conflicts which would pave the way for establishing Communities where there would be no more conflict of interests among the States, and the world would become a place composed of peaceful communities happily living together of humankind on the entire globe.
However, there have been other trends developing in Europe as well as in other regions after the Cold War. Although the world has become globalized and the world is said to become a global village, and the world is said to be no longer divided on the basis of ideologies, some individual countries, especially in Eastern Europe, particularly composed of various ethnic groups had entangled in secessionist movements, some leading to war among brethren ethnic groups and genocide had even been committed in some cases. This happened in former Yugoslavia. Later, States such as Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro came out of Yugoslavia. Some departed one another peacefully, like Czech and Slovakia, coming out two States out of the one. In addition to these secessions, the nationalistic sentiments could be witnessed growing in those countries as well as in other separated countries from the former Soviet Union. Regrettably, they have led to clashes inside the country as well as between neighbouring countries. The case in point is what has been happening in Ukraine and also in some other small countries that became independent when the Soviet Union disintegrated. These kinds of developments have led and could also be leading to more wars between the States or inside a State. These trends could also be witnessed in other parts of the world, like in Africa.
This is a dilemma in the development of the world. Although the world has become smaller on the one hand, on the other hand many smaller countries came out from the larger ones and leading to conflicts and war and again disintegration. The problem is with the growth of the nationalistic sentiments in some peoples of the world, whether they be big or small. In the United Kingdom, the Scottish people in 2014 held a referendum to decide on the question of the establishment of an independent State or to continue to stay together with Britain in the UK. At that referendum, the Scottish people voted to stay together with Britain in the United Kingdom. But now, in the wake of Brexit referendum result, there are voices again heard in Scotland that they should hold another referendum, may be within two years, to decide whether they want independence or not as the Scottish had voted in this Brexit referendum in favour of staying in the EU. The Northern Ireland had also voted to stay in the EU and now they are musing on what they should do in the light of the Brexit referendum result.
In addition to these issues, there are others like terrorism and fanaticism which are still a problem hard to handle by the international community. They are partly born out of extreme nationalistic sentiments and partly due to religious intolerance and blind faith in their narrow religious sects. They had done a lot of casualties and damages both to peoples and property. These dastardly acts were against the noblest values and concepts born out of the civilization of mankind and had brought disastrous and untold misery to human kind and the world at large.
The world should consider what would be the best course for peoples on the entire planet to enable to live in peace and harmony with unfettered progress and prosperity – whether States should be formed in regional organizations and live in Communities, or live in separate small independent entities composed of its own ethnic groups. And it should also be considered whether a Community composed of many small States would be able to effectively function to realize the aims and objectives of a Community which basically is to promote the welfare of the peoples and States in the Community in a harmonious way and to the best of satisfaction of all its members. The United Kingdom may perhaps demonstrate whether a State quite large enough like it would be able to continue to prosper for its own nationals in a way satisfactory to its citizens and at the same time continue to grow influence and play an important role by wielding power in the international arena like in the past.
Let us make the world a place where people can enjoy life in the best way it could afford us from living in unity in one’s own country on the basis of fair share and fair dealings to joining regional organizations to promote our welfare by fighting all kinds of injustices with concerted cooperation in all fields, such as economic, financial, and social, as well as preventing occurrence of natural disasters and spread of infectious diseases by tackling issues like environmental degradation and control of diseases which have the capacity to travel beyond boundaries of States and Regions.
There are some concerns that some countries in the EU would follow the British steps of holding referendum to leave the EU and thus weakening the Union and wondered whether this could have great impact and serious implications on some regional organizations and weaken them in the long run. All depend on how the UK would be manoeuvring outside the EU in the long run. For ASEAN, there is no reason yet to be discouraged by what is happening in the EU. ASEAN is still a dynamic Organization and there is no indication as yet that any member of it would have any reason or intention to depart the Association in the foreseeable future. ASEAN is still a Unity in Diversity.
However the Association should be vigilant of the changing international and regional political and strategic environment to stay united. For ASEAN unity is important. There are two reasons to strengthen the ASEAN unity. The first one is that ASEAN has many Dialogue Partners from all over the world and if ASEAN would like to continue to gain respect and control the Driver’s Seat, it must be a united Association. Secondly, Southeast Asia stands in a geostrategic position between the East and the West and between two Powers – one existing and established Power and the other emerging Power.
In the changing international politico-strategic environment, the two Powers seemed to be in fierce competition in the Asia-Pacific arena. A case in point is the South China Sea issue. China and some ASEAN Member States, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam are in bitter dispute over the ownership of some of the territories in the South China Sea. On this issue, the Asia Pacific Pivot Policy of the US seems to be playing a role. It called for the freedom of navigation on the Seas in the Indo-Pacific region which includes the South China Sea and the East China Sea. On this case, ASEAN needs to be cautious in her moves as there are some countries in the Association that have common interests with the US and some with China.
Only when ASEAN is united and could tread carefully between the two Powers, it would be able to manoeuvre successfully to serve the interests of the region and the member states and play a regional role necessary and essential for the survival, development and prosperity of the Association and its Member States.


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